Elena Ferrante: ‘I believe that books, once written, have no need of their authors.’
The Sunday before last, I sat down to breakfast and to read the paper. The thing that caught my attention was not violence or politics or celebrity, or any of the usual stuff that you expect from a front page, but a headline that read “Elena Ferrante: ‘I believe that books, once written, have no need of their authors.” The article was an excerpt from Frantumaglia, a new collection of Ferrante’s letters and interviews. If you would like to read the article, here’s the link.
By now, most people who keep abreast of literary goings-on will know of the Italian journalist who disrespected Ferrante’s need/desire to keep her identity as a writer hidden. I do not feel the need to add my voice to the many responses. Enough has been said. (If you’re new to this subject, here’s one well-observed response.)
Rather, I’d like to explore the final question of an interview by Paolo Di Stefano, which was published under the title “Ferrante: Felice di non esserci” (“Ferrante: Happy Not To Be There”) and referenced in the Guardian piece above. Di Stefano asks Ferrante: So will you tell us who you are?
On this grey November morning, a morning when the clocks have gone back, a morning when I woke up before the dawn, a morning when I was filled with the trepidation of having to send an email to an agent to ask if she would be interested in looking at my work, a morning when I’m worried that this agent will ask me about my “platform”—how many FB friends I have, if I have a twitter account, etc.—my heart settled on this question: If someone asked me to tell them who I am, how I would reply?
For this writer—for today, at least—the question works in two ways:
- Who are you—i.e. your publications, your education, your work?
- Who are you—i.e. what about your life drives your writing?
Number one is easy to answer: Co-editor of a poetry anthology; writer of two poetry collections; author of a short story manuscript that is looking for a home; editor of an ancient Chinese poetry collection; writer with a graduate degree in writing and a full-time job in a writing program; etc (i.e. a soul-less list).
But number two? Well. I like to believe that each of us has two selves: the unchanging essential self, and the constantly changing, evolutionary self. For this reason, trying to answer the question: So will you tell us who you are? is frightening because the answer is never definitive; after it is written, it stares back at us as this fixed thing, already dated. And yet, the question keeps coming. “Dear Elena, We’d love to publish your story in our next issue. Will you send us your bio?”
Evolutionary Elena G. is a six-year-old child who wanted to be a milkman when she grew up, so that her workday was finished by noon and she would have the rest of the day free to do with as she pleased. She is the eight-year-old-child who wanted to be the flying nun, so that she would always be good—because nuns are always good!—and as an added bonus she would be able to fly! She is the 10-year-old child who wanted to be a journalist so that she could let the world know of all the bad things that happen, and so that readers would be prompted to help put an end to the bad/violent/unkind things she read about in her father’s morning paper after he had finished reading it at the breakfast table.
Essential Elena G., then, is someone who wants half her day free; someone who wants to do good in the world; someone who wants to write; and most of all, beyond writing, beyond goodness, beyond a semi-diurnal daily freedom, she is someone who wants to fly.
But, truly, neither of these responses actually answers the question, Will you tell us who you are? Because, I’m thinking, that this is not the real question. The question that is being asked of us might be: So will you tell us what drives you to write? And this question, if possible, should be left unanswered, because answering it might rob you of your ability to do the thing that is most urgent in your life. For example: By now, you have learned that my most fervent desire, beyond everything, is to be able to fly. And yet, it is very likely that this yearning will be with me for the entirety of my earthly life; that is, I know that I will go to my deathbed sans wings. And yet — and yet — this does not dampen my desire. In fact, it fuels every word I write. But what you still don’t know is why I want to fly. And I will never tell you.
It is what we withhold, the thing that remains invisible to the reader that gives our writing fuel. And that, I’m guessing, is partly why Elena F. clings so fiercely to her anonymity; she holds the fear that if she exposes her Essential Self she might lose the fuel she needs to drive her writing.
And this might be why, when Di Stefano asks her, So will you tell us who you are?
Elena Ferrante responds: I’ve published six books in 20 years. Isn’t that sufficient?